It’s surprising to find so much clutter inside the Farnsworth House. Not actual stuff, but drama from the past and energy that’s out of whack. The unsettling circumstances during which this house was created are palpable. What’s especially heartbreaking about this feeling of turmoil is the fact that the project began as a wonderful collaboration between architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and client Dr. Edith Farnsworth, who shared a vision for creating a house – Mies’ first residential project in the U.S. – that “would become the prototype of new and important elements of American architecture,” said Farnsworth.
We arrive on a spectacular August day with a sapphire blue sky and soft breeze. At the Visitor Center, we’re handed OFF! towelettes and told, “The mosquitos are extra brutal today.” I wipe on the toxic suit of armor and notice that it melts the polish on my fingernails. Does Mies’ spirit object to my application of ornamentation?
The tour begins with a half-mile stroll through the woods. This is not how Farnsworth arrived, but it’s designed to separate the various groups who are touring the property at the same time. To our left, the Fox River is green and still, interrupted by a single motorboat puttering through, sending its long wake to the shore.
Finally there is a clearing in the woods through which we can see brilliant white steel beams reflecting the sun. We stop and wait for the earlier tour to finish, and we learn that one of the visitors was employed by Mies and is seeing the house for the first time. The pilgrims continue to arrive 63 years after it was built, eager to learn from and celebrate the master’s work.
While there is a lot to celebrate with this house, it’s impossible to look at it without also thinking of the clash between architect and client, the resulting lawsuits, negative publicity for both and heartless rumors about Farnsworth having a romantic obsession with Mies (there is no proof that her feelings for him were ever more than those of friendship). What a shame that something so beautiful was also the source of so much pain.
The first tour departs, and we approach the house, which was built on 5-foot stilts in an attempt to keep it safe from the Fox River. Mies was cautioned about building on a floodplain, to which he replied, “If it floods, you take a canoe to the house … it’s an adventure.” What the architect didn’t know was there was an error in the flood calculations he used, and the river would rise much higher than 5 feet. Since the house was completed, the river has flooded more than 60 times, the worst of which was in 1996, when it rose 11 feet and submerged the house. “Fortunately, pressure from the surging water shattered one of the glass windows, allowing the water to rush through the house,” says Mies’ grandson, Dirk Lohan. “Otherwise, the house might have lifted out of the ground and floated away.”
Canoes aren’t necessary on the day of our visit, and we arrive on foot. The entrance is a series of travertine steps and terraces, drawing you in, inviting you to pause, then encouraging you to continue farther. The covered terrace was screened in when Farnsworth lived here, a necessity because of the mosquitoes but much to the architect’s chagrin. A lot has been written about these screens, mostly by devotees of Miesian ideals, who claim Farnsworth’s desire for a livable home lessened the authenticity of the design; however, it’s worth noting that screens appeared on a 1945 sketch of the house, as well as on the miniature model exhibited at MoMA in 1947 – four years before the house was completed. Lord Peter Palumbo, who purchased the house from Farnsworth, removed the screens when he installed air conditioning in 1972.
Inside, we’re greeted by the “Should we be in here?” feeling you’d expect from an uninhabited place, and yet the sense of being immersed in this perfectly balanced composition while at the same time looking out on uncontrolled and unpredictable nature makes us wish we could spend the whole day here. Farnsworth welcomed “qualified persons” who asked permission to see the house but was continually intruded upon by those less gracious. “Shirts fluttered from behind trees, cameras clicked and heads encircled my ‘sleeping space’ as I woke up in the morning,” she wrote in her journal.
Farnsworth furnished the house with a mix of Danish modern and Chippendale pieces after refusing furniture that Mies ordered without her consent. “I think the Barcelona Chair is very handsome,” she wrote, “but it is fearfully heavy and utterly unsuitable for a small country house – the place would look like a Helena Rubinstein salon.” Palumbo, on the other hand, opted for the Barcelona Collection and pieces designed by Lohan upon taking ownership. The carefully considered and aesthetically pleasing changes Palumbo made are often described as “true to the architect’s intentions,” but it’s worth noting that no documents exist showing what Mies’ intentions for furniture really were.
As we leave the house and walk toward the road, the house is once more on its own. The bed that is no longer the place of someone’s dreams, the dining table where conversation is forever stilted, the galley kitchen where the teakettle no longer whistles – they again stand alone. From this view, there’s something very urban about the house, as if it’s a slice of an apartment building set on stilts in a meadow. Again I am struck by the beauty of the structure, then quickly touched by a feeling of sadness.
As for the future of the Farnsworth House and how to protect it from a constantly flooding river, three solutions are being considered: Elevate it, relocate it or install a hydraulic system to lift it prior to each flood. A final decision is pending consideration of cost and technical feasibility studies, but in the meantime the National Trust for Historic Preservation welcomes your comments on this issue.
Today the house is owned and operated as a house museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Tours are available Wednesday through Sunday, April through November.